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Archive for November, 2013

Shardowrun Returns by Harebrained Schemes

Posted by Zumbs on November 30, 2013

Shadowrun Returns LogoShadowrun Returns is a computer roleplaying game in the style of Arcanum, based on a pen and paper roleplaying game called Shadowrun. It was funded through a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign (36,000 backers, $1.8 million raised) and is available for Android, iOS, Linux, Mac and Windows, and sold on Steam, iTunes and Google Play. Harebrained Schemes has recently announced that they plan to make Shadowrun Returns available DRM-free, through gog.com.

All in all, I consider this a good game. I’m looking forward to the future campaigns and games from Harebrained Schemes.


I only actually played the Shadowrun RPG once, and it was back in the 90s, but I got to know enough to get the cliff notes on the world. Shadowrun is set in a dystopian future (2054 to be exact), where coporations have taken over from the nation states and pollution is rampant. Technology has advanced to the point where human beings can be enhanced by having technology (called cyberware) implanted, e.g. to get better eyesight, hidden weapons or more resistant to damage.

So far, it sounds a lot like your classical cyberpunk world, inspired by works like Neuromancer or Hardwired. But Shadowrun comes with a twist: A few generations ago, magic returned to the world. Imagine the surprise of regular parents when their children are born as elves and dwarves – or the horror of teenagers carrying orc or troll genes grew into … well … orcs and trolls! On top of this, there was the surprise of wizards and shamans alike that their ancient rituals suddenly had a tangible effect.

The player is intended to take the role of a shadowrunner, a mercenary hired by wealthy people and entities to take on missions of a shady character. The shadowrunner can have varying morals, but they typically live on the fringes of society, even if they make a lot of money.

You can find a lot more info on the world here.


The game comes with a single campaign – Dead Man’s Switch – but at time of writing Harebrained Schemes is working on a larger and more ambitious campaign, Dragonfall, situated in Berlin (sometimes also called the Berlin Campaign).

Shadowrun Returns location

The bubbles above some of the characters imply that they have something to say to you.

Dead Man’s Switch is set in Seattle (incidentally, the only Shadowrun PnP book I have, is the Seattle source book), where the player is contacted by Sam, a former shadowrunner ally that the player has not seen since a run went South. Sam is dead. Given his line of work, he assumed that he would end up dead, so he had a chip installed that would activate the message on his death. Sam wants the player to go to Seattle, find and punish the killer. The reward is 100,000 nuyen (a shit-load of money).

As the player investigates the murder, it becomes clear that the murder mystery is like the outer layer of an onion: Every time one issue is resolved, a new layer appears, adding a new mystery.

The campaign is well written, with many memorable characters and locations. In a similar vein, the player is given the option of some quite witty responses to NPCs. However, the campaign suffers from being very linear with locked doors used to herd the player in the “correct” direction.

It is also the game that controls when combat is entered and left as well as who can be attacked and who can’t be attacked. This reduces the freedom of the player. This is intended to minimize non-essential branches (making the campaign more robust), but it is a bit annoying at times.

At time of writing, it is also the game that controls saving: The player cannot manually save his or her progress. This is a bit annoying as there can be a half hour between save points. It should be noted that Harebrained Schemes is working on making a save game system where the player can save the game during missions. Even though we are used to all games having manual saving, it is not a trivial task to do well.


When you start a campaign in Shadowrun Returns, you also create a character. You can select name, gender, race and skills. Aside from the necessary nouns, gender has only aesthetic effects on the game. Race has little effect when you start out, but it sets a max on how good you can get at something, e.g. humans can get to 9 in everything, elves can go to 12 in Charisma, but trolls can only get 6.

Skills and stats are increased by expending Karma (rewards for doing quests). To increase a skill or stat by one point, you expend a number of Karma points equal to the next skill level. This means that as you get better, you need to spend more points.

One nice effect of this is that the first few skill levels are quite cheap, and, thus, you don’t have to worry so much about wasting a few skill points. For instance, I took a point in unarmed for my first character. Never used it. Better yet, it also means that you are actually encouraged to invest in supporting skills. Raising a skill from 9 to 10 costs 10 Karma, the same price as raising another skill from 0 to 4.

Followers and Combat

There are a lot of hard missions where you really, really need backup. Sometimes you will have friends, allies or people with similar interests who will follow you. Other times you will have to hire backup.

For the most part it works quite well. Combat is turn based, and when your side gets their turn, you control your main character as well as your followers.

There are some annoyances, though. One is that you cannot move equipment around between followers. The only time where you can give them equipment is just before going on a mission. And if you give them something, they do not give it back, even if it is not used.

Another issue is that you cannot use their skills to pass skill tests. So, your hired decker cannot hack into a computer system. You have to spend skill points to do that.

The game has resurrections called Doc Wagons, where dying characters can avoid dying. Your character can use them, your followers can use them, but they cannot use them on the player, which has failed me a few missions.

The enemies do not play to the hilt on the default difficulty. As I understand it, the AI will try to make the fullest of the NPC only if the difficulty is set to max. But be ware: Without the ability to save during missions, the likelihood of failure rises sharply with difficulty.

Art and Music

The art looks good. The view is isometric, similar to computer roleplaying games like Arcanum or Fallout, but with much more sophisticated engines and graphics. It is not top-of-the-line, but definitely good enough. And, to be blunt, once the graphics is of a decent level, Harebrained Studios really should move their focus to the story. I find the music quite good. You will be listening to it a lot while playing, so it really needs to be easy on the ears.

Editor and User Generated Content

Shadowrun Returns ships with an Editor that allows players to create their own stories and share them with others. I have not used the Editor much, but it seems quite easy for such a powerful tool.

If you press New Game followed by Find More Stories in the main menu of the game, it will open a browser with info on how you publish and find ContentPackages. User generated ContentPackages are sometimes called User Generated Content (UGC), story or mod, depending on which part of the community you are in.

shadowrun-returns-avatarThere are two major hubs for content packages: Steam workshop and the Nexus sites.

When it comes to Shadowrun Returns, Steam Workshop is by far the largest and most active. At time of writing, it has 234 files and it is my impression that it has x25 more downloads per file than Shadowrun Returns Nexus.

This is not surprising: Tablet users do not have access to mods, so Steam is the place where people get Shadowrun Returns (aside from some 35,000 backers). Furthermore, it is very easy to install content packages from Steam Workshop. Press the big, green Subscribe button, and the UGC will autoinstall and autoupdate. Steam Workshop is also integrated with the Editor, making it easy to create a content package and upload it to Steam Workshop.

However, Steam Workshop requires that you have purchased the game through Steam, so I suspect that if sales take off from gog.com, things will pick up at Nexus.

Nexus is a family of sites that grew out of the Elder Scrolls modding community. It is also quite easy to install mods from Nexus, but there are a few more steps:
1) Download the file.
2) Extract the contents of the downloaded file to \Shadowrun Returns\Shadowrun_Data\StreamingAssets\ContentPacks. For Steam games the install path will usually be something like C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common.
And … you are ready to start playing. For convenience, you can make a shortcut to the ContentPack folder.

I have played a number of UGCs, and they are generally of high quality. It is clear that the authors have put a lot of soul and work into their creations. As it is long and hard work, many of them are partitioned into chapters, where each chapter may be 1-2 hours of play. Alas, the authors do not always write that much of a description of their stories, so you don’t always know what you get. It also seems that some of the changes in the 1.1.0 patch broke some UCGs. Usually, that will be clear from the comments section.

It is fortunately easy to import characters from a saved game to a story, so you can easily play the same character through multiple stories. However, many stories are balanced to characters of a certain power, so you want a challenge, you should keep that in mind.

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